Monday, October 8th, 2012


IF it hadn’t been for the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Mitt Romney probably wouldn’t be giving a speech on foreign policy in the waning weeks of this election season. But Mr. Romney sensed an opening in President Obama’s missteps in Libya, and on Monday he plans to lay out his case that he will be a better steward of America’s national security.

For an American public fixated on the economy, another Romney valedictory on the advantages of not being Barack Obama will be a waste of time. Americans feel more comfortable when they have a sense of the candidate’s vision, because it gives them a clearer road map for the future.

Mr. Romney must articulate his vision of America’s place in the world in a way that makes sense not only to the American people, but to friends and foes alike. There is a case to be made for a contrast with Mr. Obama. But, thus far, no Republican leader has made it.

Mr. Romney needs to persuade people that he’s not simply a George W. Bush retread, eager to go to war in Syria and Iran and answer all the mail with an F-16. He needs to understand that even though Mr. Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia is more rhetorical flourish than actual policy, it responds to a crying need.

Any new vision for American greatness in the world must flow from an understanding of how the country has changed since 2001. We are still one of the richest nations on earth, but Americans are poorer, war-weary and irritated with what appears to be the ingratitude of nations for which we have sacrificed a great deal in blood and treasure. There are substantial wings of both the Democratic and Republican parties that wish to wash their hands of the world’s troubles.

In that environment, Mr. Romney must give a clear explanation of how American power since the end of World War II provided the foundation for the most prosperous and successful era in human history; how our domination of the world’s most trafficked waterways has permitted the flourishing of trade; and how exporting our principles of political and economic freedom has opened and nourished markets that buy American goods, employ American workers and allow Americans to enjoy an unmatched level of security.

More important, Americans must know that it is not for mercantile benefits alone that the United States has exerted its leadership. It is because there is no other power, and no other people, that can — or, if able, would — exert the benign influence that has characterized our role in the world. Whether you like the Iraq war or hate it; like the battle in Afghanistan or not; believe in the ouster of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi or revile it — in no case has the United States intervened for malevolent purposes.

Unfortunately, Mr. Romney hasn’t made that claim. Instead, when asked for specifics, he has outlined an Iran policy that doesn’t differ markedly from Mr. Obama’s. When pressed on what he would do differently in Syria, he has trodden so carefully that he has found himself to the left of his party’s internationalist wing. And he has doubled down on the notion that Russia remains a geostrategic threat, without presenting any persuasive evidence that it is.

It’s not that Mr. Romney does not or cannot offer a more compelling vision of American leadership. Having heard him speak privately, and having met him on a few occasions, I believe he has one. Now is the moment to show it.

Mr. Romney must make clear that he has a strategic view of American power that is different from the Obama administration’s narrow and tactical approach. He must tell Americans that he won’t overlook terrorist threats, as the Obama administration did in Benghazi; that he won’t fight to oust a dictator in Libya and ignore the pleas of another revolution in Syria; that he won’t simply denounce Iran’s nuclear program while tacitly legitimizing the country’s theocratic regime and ignoring its opponents; and that he won’t hand out billions of dollars in aid and debt forgiveness to Egypt’s new leaders when the principles of religious and political freedom are being trampled in the streets of Cairo.

Clearly America cannot do everything. But we must always champion our founding beliefs and reject the moral, political and cultural relativism that has flourished under Mr. Obama.

Mr. Romney can make the case that when people fight for their freedom, they will find support — sometimes political, sometimes economic and sometimes military — from the American president. When Russians and Chinese demand accountability from their governments, we can stand with them and work with their governments to further common interests. When terrorists target us, we will not simply eliminate them with drones while ignoring the environment that breeds them. And when our allies look to us for support, we will help them fight for themselves.

Criticisms of Mr. Obama’s national security policies have degenerated into a set of clichés about apologies, Israel, Iran and military spending. To be sure, there is more than a germ of truth in many of these accusations. But these are complaints, not alternatives. Worse yet, they betray the same robotic antipathy that animated Bush-haters. “I will not apologize for America” is no more a clarion call than “let’s nation-build at home.”

Mr. Romney must put flesh on the bones of his calls for a renewed American greatness. With a vision for American power, strategically and judiciously applied, we can continue to do great things with fewer resources. The nation’s greatest strength is not its military power or fantastic productivity. It’s the American commitment to our founding principles of political and economic freedom. If Mr. Romney can outline to voters how he will use American power to advance those principles, he will go a long way in persuading them he deserves the job of commander in chief.

* Text by Danielle Pletka is the vice president for foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute. (NYT/October 7, 2012)

President Hugo Chávez, long a fiery foe of Washington, won re-election on Sunday, facing down cancer and the strongest electoral challenge of his nearly 14 years in office and gaining a new mandate to deepen his socialist revolution.

Though his margin of victory was much narrower than in past elections, he still won handily. With 90 percent of the votes tallied, Mr. Chávez received 54 percent, to 45 percent for his opponent, Henrique Capriles Radonski, the national election council said. Fireworks erupted in Caracas after the news, and Chávez supporters celebrated in the streets.

Shortly before 11:30 p.m. local time, Mr. Chávez stepped out onto the balcony of the presidential palace in Caracas and waved to a sea of jubilant supporters. “My words of recognition go out from here to all who voted against us, a recognition for their democratic temperament,” he said. A former soldier, he called the election a “perfect battle.”

Still, after a spirited campaign, the polarizing Mr. Chávez finds himself governing a changed country. He is an ailing and politically weakened winner facing an emboldened opposition that grew stronger and more confident as the voting neared, and held out hope that an upset victory was within reach.

Mr. Chávez has said that he would move forward even more aggressively to create his version of socialism in Venezuela in a new six-year term, although his pledges were short on specifics.

His health, though, remains a question mark. He has undergone several rounds of treatment for cancer in the last 15 months, but has refused to make public essential details of his illness. If he overcomes the disease and serves out his new term to its end in 2019, he will have been in power for two full decades.

Toward the end of the campaign, facing pressure from Mr. Capriles, he pledged to make his government more efficient and to pay more attention to the quality of government programs like education. He even made appeals for the middle class and the opposition to join in his revolution.

But Mr. Chávez spent much of the year insulting and trying to provoke Mr. Capriles and his followers. And on Sunday night, he had to face the fact that the people he taunted as squalid good-for-nothings, little Yankees and fascists, turned out to be nearly half the electorate.

As the opposition’s momentum grew, Mr. Chávez’s insults seemed to lose their sting. By the end of the campaign, young people in Caracas were wearing colorful T-shirts that said “majunche” or good-for-nothing, Mr. Chávez’s favorite taunt.

Mr. Capriles was subdued on Sunday night, congratulating Mr. Chávez and saying he hoped the president would see the result as “the expression today of a country with two visions, and to be president means working to solve the problems of all Venezuelans.”

He appeared poised to carry on his fight in the elections for state governors in December. “You should all feel proud, do not feel defeated,” he told supporters.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research institute in Washington, called the presidential election “a fundamental turning point.” He said Mr. Chávez was “going to have to deal with a very different society than he dealt with in his last term, a society that’s awakened and more organized and more confident.”

Even so, the opposition is a fragile coalition with a history of destructive infighting, especially after an election defeat. Mr. Capriles will have to keep this fractious amalgam of parties from the left, right and center together in order to take advantage of the new ground they have gained.

“The opposition has more power, it feels more support,” said Elsi Fernandes, a schoolteacher, who voted for Mr. Capriles on Sunday morning in Catia, a poor neighborhood in Caracas. “The difference is that we’re not going to stay with our arms crossed.”

The turnout was more than 80 percent, the highest in decades, the election council said. People stood in line for hours, although the voting appeared in most cases to run smoothly.

By , October 7, 2012

Reporting was contributed by María Eugenia Díaz, Jonathan Gilbert, Girish Gupta and Andrew Rosati from Caracas, and María Iguarán from Cumaná, Sucre State (Venezuela)

The conversation fluctuates between a legendary Tunki coffee and a brand new pisco, Larroca, served up cold, in accordance with the tastes of its creator: Bernardo Roca Rey, architect of the Novoandino cuisine, exquisite epicure, president of the Peruvian Society of Gastronomy (APEGA), and the current promoter of the rescue and rehabilitation of Peru’s millions of acres of agricultural terraces.

How was this project born?
In the Ministry of Culture, during my time as Viceminster for Cultural Heritage, I had the the opportunity to be close to the issue of the terraces. Conserving the walls of the terraces is what the ministry must do with its archaeologists, and it works, but it is expensive. The other way is that the farms work them, and in so doing, they will also provide maintenance. If there are a million hectares of terraces, 700,000 of those are abandoned.

Up until 1999, there were programs to map the Andean terraces, but they have been abandoned. Days ago, in Mistura, we managed to gather together seven ministers to talk about the Andean diet, and one of them was Trivelli (Minister of Development), who has done studies of the terraces. APEGA goes hand-in-hand with two ideas: nutrition and social inclusion. In both cases, the Andean terraces are important to recuperate. If there are a million hectares, that’s a little bit more than 10% of all the arable land used for cultivation in Peru, and it’s a shame that that land isn’t being used.

What is the Ministry of Culture doing about it?
They have abandoned all of the projects that existed. There isn’t even a complete map of the terraces in Peru, where they are and which they are. They’ve identified barely 50% of them.

Is mapping the first step for their recuperation?
The first step is a pilot project: take 500 hectares and adopt them. The objective is that these lands, which are the most productive in Peru, offer the Peruvian restaurants of the world the Andean grains that are so fashionable. For years, I have been promoting the Novoandina cuisine, and among those crops are quinoa, oca, mashua, products which will soon be fashionable. We started with quinoa twenty years ago, and it’s a success today.

What is the idea? To give value added through the denomination of origin; having products that are introduced with the gastronomic boom and also grown on Andean terraces, some of which are three thousand years old. That a restaurant in Paris, for example, adopts a terrace and once a year offers roasted, glazed mashua. What you will have then is a cultural phenomenon which will allow for value to be added to the product, and the farmer will be well-paid.

Additionally, if they are crops from the VRAE, where there are many terraces, it can be another type of assistance. For example, the U.S. government and restaurants in the U.S. could receive those crops, which are also organic. Everything goes hand-in-hand: biodiversity, ancestral crops, new cuisine, boutique agriculture, all of those go together and break the inertia. And that the state puts in $500 million to save a certain number of terraces.


Where will you realize the pilot project?

The closer to Lima, the easier. In APEGA, we have a project with the Interamerican Development Bank, which has given us $3 million as a nonrefundable amount for supply chains, and with part of that we could begin to work on this subject.

I firmly believe that the Andean diet is related to the terraces, so that all of the ministry portfolios are related to this: Tourism, Agriculture, Social Inclusion and Health. The issue is in the hands of the state. I have calculated that it takes an average of $5,800 to recover one hectare. In APEGA, we can recover 100, but with the state or help from abroad, we could recover thousands. Some villagers in Ayacucho are already willing, and the corn that they haven’t grown for a while could be cultivated there. There is a fungus, which in Mexico they eat and call huitlacoche, which contaminates the corn crops, and in Cusco, the infected corn are just tossed out. It would be interesting to grow the infected corn, in order to sell the fungus, which elsewhere is worth much more than the corn itself. The same monks cress plant that I am growing in my garden can be used to produce “Incapers,” in place of regular capers.

Going back in time, what was your first contact with the Peruvian terraces?
I was a boy, because my family led me to this and traveled a lot. I remember being very young and lying down on a terrace in Machu Picchu and looking at the stars, thinking that this was the best thing you could ever do. Who would have guessed that I would end up having to care for them myself…

If we develop them, Peru, instead of having 1.2 million kilometers, would have 2 million. That is, we would be as big as a flat country like Mexico.

 

By Maribel de Paz  (“Caretas” magazine from PERU). 

Translated and adapted by Nick Rosen, October 4, 2012

 

Earlier this year, Peru passed a resolution to reduce its carbon footprint. It prescribed the use of clean energy and a stop to the illegal culling of Amazonian rainforests. Peru acted with good reason. Peru is a country that relies on its agricultural and fishing sectors as major sources of employment and food. A majority of the country’s population lives in the coastal desert, and relies on water from shrinking mountain glaciers and ever-more erratic rains in the Andes. As a result, climate change could hammer the Peruvian economy and Peruvians’ way of life.

That said, Peru produces just 0.4% of the world’s carbon emissions. Any solution to global climate change will have to come from beyond Peru’s borders, and one of the places where that change must happen is the United States of America. The U.S. produces some 18% of the world’s carbon emissions, second only to China. Nonetheless, the U.S. has failed to implement wide-ranging policies to reduce carbon emissions. How do Barack Obama and Mitt Romney see the problem of climate change, and what solutions do they offer?

ROMNEY
Mitt Romney has expressed some seemingly contradictory positions on the causes of climate change, according to a  timeline compiled by Climate Silence. In his 2010 book No Apology, Romney questioned the scientific consensus attributing climate change to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. On the campaign trail the next year, however, he told a town hall meeting that he believed that humans were contributing to global warming, and that therefore, “…it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and the global warming that you’re seeing.”

Months later, however, Romney again began publicly questioning the idea that global warming is caused by humans. “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans. … What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to,” he said in Lebanon, New Hampshire. This year, however, Romney told Science Debate, “I am not a scientist myself, but my best assessment of the data is that the world is getting warmer, that human activity contributes to that warming, and that policymakers should therefore consider the risk of negative consequences.”

That said, Romney’s policy recommendations on issues of energy and government regulation suggest that concerns about climate change will not weigh heavily on his decision-making. Romney is strongly advocating an increase of gas and oil drilling both on-and-off-shore in the United States. Romney opposed a tax credit for the production of wind energy.

Romney has also taken a dim view of proposals to regulate carbon emissions. He stated that he disagreed with the Environmental Protection Agency’s right to oversee carbon emissions as pollutants. While Romney voiced some support for cap and trade (in which carbon emission limits would be set, and companies could buy and sale credits for emissions) while governor of Massachusetts, the policy is not part of his 2012 platform.

OBAMA
For those concerned about climate change, Obama’s first term in office has been a mixed bag of success and disappointment. Obama has continued U.S. resistance to the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty which prescribes cuts in carbon emissions, despite the U.S. having signed the document in 1997. While Obama pushed cap and trade legislation through the House of Representatives in 2009, the bill died in the Senate and has shown no signs of being resuscitated.

After the failure of cap and trade, however, Obama empowered the EPA to regulate carbon emissions as pollutants. His administration also toughened emissions standards for cars and trucks. His administration has sought to have subsidies for oil and gas companies lowered and eliminated, while pushing for tax credits and other incentives for renewable energy providers.

Looking ahead, Obama has made little mention of climate change in the 2012 campaign. One notable exception was his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, when he said that, “Climate change is not a hoax,” and promised further carbon reduction. Nevertheless, Obama’s platform includes more oil and gas drilling the United States.

 

By Nick Rosen, October 3, 2012

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The U.S. presidential election and Peru: Immigration

In little more than a month, millions of Americans will head to the polls to select the next president of the United States. What would the election of Mitt Romney or the re-election of Barack Obama mean for Peru? This multi-part series will seek to answer that question, issue-by-issue. Today, we look at the two candidates’ positions on immigration.

Peruvians in the United States
It’s hard to track down a firm number on how many Peruvians are living in the United States. The U.S. Census finds about 600,000 people claiming Peruvian origins in the country, but that includes native-born and naturalized U.S. citizens. A press release from Peru’s representatives in the Parlamento Andino estimated that there a million Peruvians living in the U.S., with half of them undocumented. Other estimates say that two-thirds of the Peruvians resident in the U.S. are undocumented. Most estimates suggest that between 2% and 4% of Peru’s citizens live in the United States.

Peruvian immigration to the U.S. has a huge economic impact back home. The Inter-American Development Bank calculates that in 2011, Peruvians in the U.S. sent some $902 million back to their families in Peru. Whil remittances from Europe have fallen, those from the United States have grown in the past year.

Positions on undocumented immigration
As estimates suggest that at least half of the Peruvian immigrants living in the U.S. are doing so without a legal visa, the candidates’ positions on “illegal” immigration are important for the Peruvian community.

When Barack Obama ran for the presidency in 2008, one of his campaign promises was to implement comprehensive immigration reform, providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That has not happened.

A more modest bill, the DREAM Act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for undocumented young people who were brought to the United States as children and later completed high school, was voted down by the Republican majority in Congress. The president later implemented an executive order which, at least temporarily, accomplished much of what was outlined in the DREAM Act. Still, Obama recently said that the failure to implement comprehensive immigration reform was the greatest failure of his first term, and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria remains part of his platform in the 2012 campaign.

Under Obama’s government, deportations of undocumented immigrants increased, with some 1,100 Peruvians deported from the country in 2010 and 2011, according to El Comercio. On the other hand, the administration’s Justice Department sued to stop an Arizona state law that would have allowed local law enforcement officers to question anyone they believed to be in the United States illegally.

Mitt Romney’s position on undocumented immigration deviates sharply from Obama’s. Rather than advocating a path for citizenship, Romney has called for creating incentives for undocumented immigrants to leave the United States. Among the initiatives would be a “mandatory employment verification system that will enable employers to be sure that those they hire are eligible to work. This will discourage illegal immigrants from coming to America to seek jobs,” according to his campaign’s website. Romney says that he would  reform the temporary worker program to make it a viable alternative to illegal immigration.

Romney also believes that denying undocumented immigrants benefits, such as state drivers licenses and in-state tuition at public university, will help stop the flow of undocumented workers. The Romney campaign has repeatedly refused to state whether Romney supports the Arizona state law, though it has said that Romney believes that states should have more power to draft immigration laws. Romney has said that he would veto the DREAM Act, but does say that young people who come to the U.S. as children and later serve in the military should have a path to citizenship.

Positions on legal immigration
The two candidates’ positions are significantly closer on legal immigration. Both candidates have called for more visas for high-skilled workers and those with advanced degrees, citing the positive impact that these immigrants have on the economy. Both candidates have stated that there is a need to reform the temporary worker program so that economic sectors like agricultural and tourism can get the workers that they need.

Romney says that he would facilitate and speed up the processing of visas for the relatives of American citizens and permanent residents, and would raise the caps of high-skilled immigrants from many countries.

Barack Obama opposes the designation of English as the official language of the United States, saying that it would keep Spanish speakers from accessing government services. Mitt Romney says that he would support legislation designating English as an official language.

 

Pandora FB Tw Ggl Contact us
Hi there,
This is Tim, the founder of Pandora.
I am writing to ask for your urgent help. An important piece of legislation has just been introduced in Congress that could end long-standing discrimination against Internet radio. I’m asking that you contact your Senator to urge them to support the Internet Radio Fairness Act.
This bipartisan bill will correct the incredible inequity in how different digital radio formats are treated under the law when it comes to setting royalties. The difference is quite extraordinary. In 2011, Pandora paid over 50% of our revenues in performance royalties, while SiriusXM paid less than 10%.

As a lifelong musician, I’m fully supportive of artist compensation, but this situation can’t continue. Internet radio is bringing millions of listeners back to music, and is playing the songs of tens of thousands of promising artists who would otherwise never be heard. It should be given a fair chance to succeed.

To voice your support for this initiative, please reach out to your Senator today and say you support the Internet Radio Fairness Act.
Senator: Kirsten Gillibrand
Washington D.C. Office Number: 202-224-4451
If you’d like more information about the Internet Radio Fairness Act you can learn more here.
It’s crucial that Congress hears from fans of Internet radio today. Thanks for your support, and thanks for being a loyal listener.
Tim WestergrenTim Westergren
Founder, Pandora
© Copyright 2012, Pandora Media, Inc. All rights reserved. 
2101 Webster Street Suite 1650, Oakland, CA 94612

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our brains are better than Google or the best robot from iRobot.

We can instantly search through a vast wealth of experiences and emotions. We can immediately recognize the face of a parent, spouse, friend or pet, whether in daylight, darkness, from above or sideways—a task that the computer vision system built into the most sophisticated robots can accomplish only haltingly. We can also multitask effortlessly when we extract a handkerchief from a pocket and mop our brow while striking up a conversation with an acquaintance. Yet designing an electronic brain that would allow a robot to perform this simple combination of behaviors remains a distant prospect.

How does the brain pull all this off, given that the complexity of the networks inside our skull—trillions of connections among billions of brain cells—rivals that of theInternet? One answer is energy efficiency: when a nerve cell communicates with another, the brain uses just a millionth of the energy that a digital computer expends to perform the equivalent operation. Evolution, in fact, may have played an important role in pushing the three-pound organ toward ever greater energy efficiencies.

Parsimonious energy consumption cannot be the full explanation, though, given that the brain also comes with many built-in limitations. One neuron in the cerebral cortex, for instance, can respond to an input from another neuron by firing an impulse, or a “spike,” in thousandths of a second—a snail’s pace compared with the transistors that serve as switches in computers, which take billionths of a second to switch on. The reliability of the neuronal network is also low: a signal traveling from one cortical cell to another typically has only a 20 percent possibility of arriving at its ultimate destination and much less of a chance of reaching a distant neuron to which it is not directly connected.

Neuroscientists do not fully understand how the brain manages to extract meaningful information from all the signaling that goes on within it. The two of us and others, however, have recently made exciting progress by focusing new attention on how the brain can efficiently use the timing of spikes to encode information and rapidly solve difficult computational problems. This is because a group of spikes that fire almost at the same moment can carry much more information than can a comparably sized group that activates in an unsynchronized fashion.

Beyond offering insight into the most complex known machine in the universe, further advances in this research could lead to entirely new kinds of computers. Already scientists have built “neuromorphic” electronic circuits that mimic aspects of the brain’s signaling network. We can build devices today with a million electronic neurons, and much larger systems are planned. Ultimately investigators should be able to build neuromorphic computers that function much faster than modern computers but require just a fraction of the power [see “Neuromorphic Microchips,” by Kwabena Boahen; Scientific American, May 2005].

Cell Chatter

Like many other neuroscientists, we often use the visual system as our test bed, in part because its basic wiring diagram is well understood. Timing of signals there and elsewhere in the brain has long been suspected of being a key part of the code that the brain uses to decide whether information passing through the network is meaningful. Yet for many decades these ideas were neglected because timing is only important when compared between different parts of the brain, and it was hard to measure activity of more than one neuron at a time. Recently, however, the practical development of computer models of the nervous system and new results from experimental and theoretical neuroscience have spurred interest in timing as a way to better understand how neurons talk to one another.

Brain cells receive all kinds of inputs on different timescales. The microsecond-quick signal from the right ear must be reconciled with the slightly out-of-sync input from the left. These rapid responses contrast with the sluggish stream of hormones coursing through the bloodstream. The signals most important for this discussion, though, are the spikes, which are sharp rises in voltage that course through and between neurons. For cell-to-cell communication, spikes lasting a few milliseconds handle immediate needs. A neuron fires a spike after deciding that the number of inputs urging it to switch on outweigh the number telling it to turn off. When the decision is made, a spike travels down the cell’s axon (somewhat akin to a branched electrical wire) to its tips. Then the signal is relayed chemically through junctions, called synapses, that link the axon with recipient neurons.

In each eye, 100 million photoreceptors in the retina respond to changing patterns of light. After the incoming light is processed by several layers of neurons, a million ganglion cells at the back of the retina convert these signals into a sequence of spikes that are relayed by axons to other parts of the brain, which in turn send spikes to still other regions that ultimately give rise to a conscious perception. Each axon can carry up to several hundred spikes each second, though more often just a few spikes course along the neural wiring. All that you perceive of the visual world—the shapes, colors and movements of everything around you—is coded into these rivers of spikes with varying time intervals separating them.

Monitoring the activity of many individual neurons at once is critical for making sense of what goes on in the brain but has long been extremely challenging. In 2010, though, E. J. Chichilnisky of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and his colleagues reported in Nature that they had achieved the monumental task of simultaneously recording all the spikes from hundreds of neighboring ganglion cells in monkey retinas. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.) This achievement made it possible to trace the specific photoreceptors that fed into each ganglion cell. The growing ability to record spikes from many neurons simultaneously will assist in deciphering meaning from these codelike brain signals.

For years investigators have used several methods to interpret, or decode, the meaning in the stream of spikes coming from the retina. One method counts spikes from each axon separately over some period: the higher the firing rate, the stronger the signal. The information conveyed by a variable firing rate, a rate code, relays features of visual images, such as location in space, regions of differing light contrast, and where motion occurs, with each of these features represented by a given group of neurons.

Information is also transmitted by relative timing—when one neuron fires in close relation to when another cell spikes. Ganglion cells in the retina, for instance, are exquisitely sensitive to light intensity and can respond to a changing visual scene by transmitting spikes to other parts of the brain. When multiple ganglion cells fire at almost the same instant, the brain suspects that they are responding to an aspect of the same physical object. Horace Barlow, a leading neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, characterized this phenomenon as a set of “suspicious coincidences.” Barlow referred to the observation that each cell in the visual cortex may be activated by a specific physical feature of an object (say, its color or its orientation within a scene). When several of these cells switch on at the same time, their combined activation constitutes a suspicious coincidence because it may only occur at a specific time for a unique object. Apparently the brain takes such synchrony to mean that the signals are worth noting because the odds of such coordination occurring by chance are slim.

 

Electrical engineers are trying to build on this knowledge to create more efficient hardware that incorporates the principles of spike timing when recording visual scenes. One of us (Delbruck) has built a camera that emits spikes in response to changes in a scene’s brightness, which enables the tracking of very fast moving objects with minimal processing by the hardware to capture images [see box above].

Into the Cortex

New evidence adds proof that the visual cortex attends to temporal clues to make sense of what the eye sees. The ganglion cells in the retina do not project directly to the cortex but relay signals through neurons in the thalamus, deep within the brain’s midsection. This region in turn must activate 100 million cells in the visual cortex in each hemisphere at the back of the brain before the messages are sent to higher brain areas for conscious interpretation.

We can learn something about which spike patterns are most effective in turning on cells in the visual cortex by examining the connections from relay neurons in the thalamus to cells known as spiny stellate neurons in a middle layer of the visual cortex. In 1994 Kevan Martin, now at the Institute of Neuroinformatics at the University of Zurich, and his colleagues reconstructed the thalamic inputs to the cortex and found that they account for only 6 percent of all the synapses on each spiny stellate cell. How, then, everyone wondered, does this relatively weak visual input, a mere trickle, manage to reliably communicate with neurons in all layers of the cortex?

Cortical neurons are exquisitely sensitive to fluctuating inputs and can respond to them by emitting a spike in a matter of a few milliseconds. In 2010 one of us (Sejnowski), along with Hsi-Ping Wang and Donald Spencer of the Salk Institute and Jean-Marc Fellous of the University of Arizona, developed a detailed computer model of a spiny stellate cell and showed that even though a single spike from only one axon cannot cause one of these cells to fire, the same neuron will respond reliably to inputs from as few as four axons projecting from the thalamus if the spikes from all four arrive within a few milliseconds of one another. Once inputs arrive from the thalamus, only a sparse subset of the neurons in the visual cortex needs to fire to represent the outline and texture of an object. Each spiny stellate neuron has a preferred visual stimulus from the eye that produces a high firing rate, such as the edge of an object with a particular angle of orientation.

In the 1960s David Hubel of Harvard Medical School and Torsten Wiesel, now at the Rockefeller University, discovered that each neuron in the relevant section of the cortex responds strongly to its preferred stimulus only if activation comes from a specific part of the visual field called the neuron’s receptive field. Neurons responding to stimulation in the fovea, the central region of the retina, have the smallest receptive fields—about the size of the letter e on this page. Think of them as looking at the world through soda straws. In the 1980s John Allman of the California Institute of Technology showed that visual stimulation from outside the receptive field of a neuron can alter its firing rate in reaction to inputs from within its receptive field. This “surround” input puts the feature that a neuron responds to into the context of the broader visual environment.

Stimulating the region surrounding a neuron’s receptive field also has a dramatic effect on the precision of spike timing. David McCormick, James Mazer and their colleagues at Yale University recently recorded the responses of single neurons in the cat visual cortex to a movie that was replayed many times. When they narrowed the movie image so that neurons triggered by inputs from the receptive field fired (no input came from the surrounding area), the timing of the signals from these neurons had a randomly varying and imprecise pattern. When they expanded the movie to cover the surrounding area outside the receptive field, the firing rate of each neuron decreased, but the spikes were precisely timed.

 

The timing of spikes also matters for other neural processes. Some evidence suggests that synchronized timing—with each spike representing one aspect of an object (color or orientation)—functions as a means of assembling an image from component parts. A spike for “pinkish red” fires in synchrony with one for “round contour,” enabling the visual cortex to merge these signals into the recognizable image of a flower pot.

Attention and Memory

Our story so far has tracked visual processing from the photoreceptors to the cortex. But still more goes into forming a perception of a scene. The activity of cortical neurons that receive visual input is influenced not only by those inputs but also by excitatory and inhibitory interactions between cortical neurons. Of particular importance for coordinating the many neurons responsible for forming a visual perception is the spontaneous, rhythmic firing of a large number of widely separated cortical neurons at frequencies below 100 hertz.

Attention—a central facet of cognition—may also have its physical underpinnings in sequences of synchronized spikes. It appears that such synchrony acts to emphasize the importance of a particular perception or memory passing through conscious awareness. Robert Desimone, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues have shown that when monkeys pay attention to a given stimulus, the number of cortical neurons that fire synchronized spikes in the gamma band of frequencies (30 to 80 hertz) increases, and the rate at which they fire rises as well. Pascal Fries of the Ernst Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience in cooperation with the Max Planck Society in Frankfurt found evidence for gamma-band signaling between distant cortical areas.

Neural activation of the gamma-frequency band has also attracted the attention of researchers who have found that patients with schizophrenia and autism show decreased levels of this type of signaling on electroencephalographic recordings. David Lewis of the University of Pittsburgh, Margarita Behrens of the Salk Institute and others have traced this deficit to a type of cortical neuron called a basket cell, which is involved in synchronizing spikes in nearby circuits. An imbalance of either inhibition or excitation of the basket cells seems to reduce synchronized activity in the gamma band and may thus explain some of the physiological underpinnings of these neurological disorders. Interestingly, patients with schizophrenia do not perceive some visual illusions, such as the tilt illusion, in which a person typically misjudges the tilt of a line because of the tilt of nearby lines. Similar circuit abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex may be responsible for the thought disorders that accompany schizophrenia.

When it comes to laying down memories, the relative timing of spikes seems to be as important as the rate of firing. In particular, the synchronized firing of spikes in the cortex is important for increasing the strengths of synapses—an important process in forming long-term memories. A synapse is said to be strengthened when the firing of a neuron on one side of a synapse leads the neuron on the other side of the synapse to register a stronger response. In 1997 Henry Markram and Bert Sakmann, then at the Max Plank Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, discovered a strengthening process known as spike-timing-dependent plasticity, in which an input at a synapse is delivered at a frequency in the gamma range and is consistently followed within 10 milliseconds by a spike from the neuron on the other side of the synapse, a pattern that leads to enhanced firing by the neuron receiving the stimulation. Conversely, if the neuron on the other side fires within 10 milliseconds before the first one, the strength of the synapse between the cells decreases.

Some of the strongest evidence that synchronous spikes may be important for memory comes from research by György Buzsáki of New York University and others on the hippocampus, a brain area that is important for remembering objects and events. The spiking of neurons in the hippocampus and the cortical areas that it interacts with is strongly influenced by synchronous oscillations of brain waves in a range of frequencies from four to eight hertz (the theta band), the type of neural activity encountered, for instance, when a rat is exploring its cage in a laboratory experiment. These theta-band oscillations can coordinate the timing of spikes and also have a more permanent effect in the synapses, which results in long-term changes in the firing of neurons.

 

A Grand Challenge Ahead

Neuroscience is at a turning point as new methods for simultaneously recording spikes in thousands of neurons help to reveal key patterns in spike timing and produce massive databases for researchers. Also, optogenetics—a technique for turning on genetically engineered neurons using light—can selectively activate or silence neurons in the cortex, an essential step in establishing how neural signals control behavior. Together, these and other techniques will help us eavesdrop on neurons in the brain and learn more and more about the secret code that the brain uses to talk to itself. When we decipher the code, we will not only achieve an understanding of the brain’s communication system, we will also start building machines that emulate the efficiency of this remarkable organ.

 

* By Terry Sejnowski and Tobi Delbruck  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Terry Sejnowski is an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and is Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, where he directs the Computational Neurobiology Laboratory.

Tobi Delbruck is co-leader of the sensors group at the Institute of Neuroinformatics at the University of Zurich.

 MORE TO EXPLORE

Terry Sejnowski’s 2008 Wolfgang Pauli Lectures on how neurons compute and communicate: www.podcast.ethz.ch/podcast/episodes/?id=607

Neuromorphic Sensory Systems. Shih-Chii Liu and Tobi Delbruck in Current Opinion in Neurobiology, Vol. 20, No. 3, pages 288–295; June 2010. http://tinyurl.com/bot7ag8

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE
Watch a video about a motion-sensing video camera that uses spikes for imaging at ScientificAmerican.com/oct2012/dvs

Make all sorts of ostensibly conscious and seemingly rational choices when we are aware of a potential risk. We eat organic food, max out on multivitamins and quickly forswear some products (even whole technologies) at the slightest hint of danger. We carry guns and vote for the candidate we think will keep us safe. Yet these choices are far from carefully considered — and, surprisingly often, they contravene reason. What’s more, while our choices about risk invariably feel right when we make them, many of these decisions end up putting us in greater peril.

 

Researchers in neuroscience, psychology, economics and other disciplines have made a range of discoveries about why human beings sometimes fear more than the evidence warrants, and sometimes less than the evidence warns. That science is worth reviewing at length. But one current issue offers a crash course in the most significant of these findings: the fear of vaccines, particularly vaccines for children.

In a 2011 Thomson Reuters/NPR poll, nearly one parent in three with a child under 18 was worried about vaccines, and roughly one American in four was concerned about the value and safety of vaccines in general. In the same poll, roughly one out of every five college-educated respondents worried that childhood vaccination was connected with autism; 7 percent said they feared a link with Type 1 diabetes.

Based on the evidence, these and most other concerns about vaccines are unfounded. A comprehensive report last year from the Institute of Medicine is just one of many studies to report that vaccines do not cause autism, diabetes, asthma or other major afflictions listed by the anti-vaccination movement.

Yet these fears, fierce and visceral, persist. To frustrated doctors and health officials, vaccine-phobia seems an irrational denial of the facts that puts both the unvaccinated child and the community at greater risk (as herd immunity goes down, disease spread rises). But the more we learn about how risk perception works, the more understandable — if still quite dangerous — the fear of vaccines becomes.

Along with many others, the cognitive psychologists Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon and Baruch Fischhoff of Carnegie Mellon University have identified several reasons something might feel more or less scary than mere reason might suppose. Humans subconsciously weigh the risks and benefits of any choice or course of action — and if taking a particular action seems to afford little or no benefit, the risk automatically feels bigger. Vaccinations are a striking example. As the subconscious mind might view it, vaccines protect children from diseases like measles and pertussis, or whooping cough, that are no longer common, so the benefit to vaccination feels small — and smaller still, perhaps, compared to even the minuscule risk of a serious side effect. (In actuality, outbreaks of both of these infections have been more common in recent years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Contrast this with how people felt in the 1950s, in the frightening days of polio, when parents lined their kids up for vaccines that carried much greater risk than do the modern ones. The risk felt smaller, because the benefit was abundantly clear.

Professor Slovic and Professor Fischhoff and others have found that a risk imposed upon a person, like mandatory vaccination programs (nearly all of which allow people to opt out), feels scarier than the same risk if taken voluntarily. Risk perception also depends on trust. A risk created by a source you don’t trust will feel scarier. The anti-vaccination movement is thick with mistrust of government and the drug industry. Finally, risks that are human-made, like vaccines, evoke more worry than risks that are natural. Some parents who refuse to have their kids vaccinated say they are willing to accept the risk of the disease, because the disease is “natural.”

Still, shouldn’t our wonderful powers of reason be able to overcome these instinctive impediments to clear thinking? The neuroscience of fear makes clear that such hope is hubris. Work on the neural roots of fear by the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux of New York University, and others, has found that in the complex interplay of slower, conscious reason and quicker, subconscious emotion and instinct, the basic architecture of the brain ensures that we feel first and think second. The part of the brain where the instinctive “fight or flight” signal is first triggered — the amygdala — is situated such that it receives incoming stimuli before the parts of the brain that think things over. Then, in our ongoing response to potential peril, the way the brain is built and operates assures that we are likely to feel more and think less. As Professor LeDoux puts it in “The Emotional Brain”: “the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems.”

And so we have excessive fear of vaccines. But just as we are too afraid of some things, this same “feelings and facts” system works the other way too, sometimes leaving us inadequately concerned about bigger risks. A risky behavior you engage in voluntarily and that seems to afford plenty of benefit — think sun-tanning for that “nice, healthy glow” — feels less dangerous. A societal risk, well off in the future, tends not to trigger the same instinctive alarm — in part, because the hazard isn’t singling any one of us out, individually. This helps explain why concern over climate change is broad, but thin.

Though it may be prone to occasional errors, our risk-perception system isn’t all bad. After all, it has gotten us this far through evolution’s gantlet. But a system that relies so heavily on emotion and instinct sometimes produces risk perceptions that don’t match the evidence, a “risk perception gap” that can be a risk in itself. We do have to fear the dangers of fear itself.

In this remarkable era of discovery about how our brains operate, we have discovered a great deal about why the gap occurs, and we can — and should — put our detailed knowledge of risk perception to use in narrowing the risk-perception gap and reducing its dangers. As the Italian philosopher Nicola Abbagnano advised, “Reason itself is fallible, and this fallibility must find a place in our logic.” Accepting that risk perception is not so much a process of pure reason, but rather a subjective combination of the facts and how those facts feel, might be just the step in the human learning curve we need to make. Then, maybe, we’ll start making smarter decisions about vaccines and other health matters.

 

By DAVID ROPEIK, September 28, 2012

David Ropeik is an instructor at the Harvard Extension School and the author of “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.”